Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Gig Review: Adrian Sherwood, Wellington, 2011

Adrian Sherwood playing live in Wellington would normally be an automatic contender for my ‘gig of the year’ shortlist. But due to a combination of factors, I really struggled to enjoy myself at Bodega last Thursday night. I’d had a helluva busy day, I was definitely suffering from a severe bout of pre-Xmas fatigue, and despite the fact that I’d been really looking forward to the night/gig for weeks, come the hour, I just wasn’t “up” for it. Rather anti-climatically, I “hit the wall” just after midnight with Sherwood little more than an hour into his set.

Sherwood himself though, to be fair, was on top form. The best illustration of his all around genius was when he relieved support DJ ‘Vital Sounds Hi Fi’ of the controls at the start of his set. It was almost as though a switch had been flicked, and (with no disrespect to Marty of ‘Vital Sounds’, who warmed up the moderately sized crowd nicely) the difference between a “guy that plays records” and a genuinely world-class sound technician/dub producer was immediately obvious.

The On-U Sound label guru’s DJ set (or at least the first 90 minutes thereof) was a mixture of old faves from the extensive On-U Sound archives and some newer material. Of the old stuff, ‘Two Thieves And A Liar’ was a definite highlight for me personally, with Sherwood taking a moment to dedicate it to all the “bankers” of the world. The track itself is over 20 years old but as a standalone piece of political (and social) commentary, it still seemed so fitting and relevant, given events across the globe in 2011.

Of the newer stuff, it was interesting to hear Sherwood’s take on Dubstep, with an industrial-strength blast of fcked up bass and wobble kicking in quite early on – which would have been all fine and good had the venue’s acoustics and sound system been up to the task, but to be completely honest neither was particularly suitable to the bass-centric demands of Sherwood’s work. The resultant distortion made for an uncomfortable few minutes whenever Sherwood applied a bass heavy Dubstep slant to his work; the sub becoming so unbearable at times I was almost praying for the top end to return, and it was certainly a relief when it did.

But ultimately Sherwood has immaculate taste, and even if the mind-warping Electro/Dubstep stuff didn’t hold much appeal, there was plenty from his back catalogue to keep me happy – the man is a master of roots reggae and to see him spin that stuff while applying a wide range of dubby FX live and in the flesh made the night worthwhile. As did the fact that I managed to catch up with a number of old friends and familiar faces in what was a much smaller crowd than I’d initially anticipated.

Overall, Sherwood did his job brilliantly and I have no issue with his performance whatsoever. It was just a pity I felt so lethargic, and my complete lack of energy resulted in me departing the venue while the gig was still in progress. I’d say “maybe next time” but I actually don’t think there will be a next time when it comes to Adrian Sherwood in New Zealand.

Sometimes, no matter how much you will yourself to enjoy something, it just doesn’t turn out the way you want it to. Last Thursday was one of those nights.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On-U Sound In The Area

Every now and again, 'Stuff' (NZ mainstream media website) music blogger Simon Sweetman invites regular readers/posters to "Right This Blog!" (sic) by submitting a "guest blog" for publication while Simon kicks back and takes a week off. This is an interesting guest blog published yesterday, and I have it on very good authority that its author - one "Tim Possible" (a pseudonym, obviously) - has a very close relationship with the very site you're reading right now! ... basically, if you're reading this blog, there's a strong likelihood you'll know Tim Possible! ;-) ... have a read:


Friday, October 28, 2011

A Short History of Palmerston North Nightlife in the 1980s ... a personal journey:

The following has been written to help provide some context and background to the ‘Fezzed’ Facebook page, which has been set-up to help facilitate a 25-year reunion of a group of 1980s Palmerston North nightclub patrons ... and it has also been written because there are certain times in your life you just feel an irrepressible need to document for posterity.
Part One: Buffalo Music (1982-1984)
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the best of times because we were in our youth, wild and crazy-eyed, and anything seemed possible. It was the worst of times because we were trapped in Palmerston North, smalltown NZ, and many of us yearned to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. It was also the 1980s ... the decade that taste forgot.
To the outside world, Palmerston North – aka Palmy – had very little going for it in the early Eighties. As a town-cum-city it had still to morph from its traditional role as an over-sized market town for the rural economy that surrounded it, into the culturally diverse sprawling hub of learning and education that we recognise today. To an outsider, particularly those of the big city persuasion, it simply had to rate as one of the most boring destinations on the planet.
But for those of us who lived there, those of us still enjoying our wild-eyed and crazy youth phase, well, we just needed to scratch a little beneath the surface to find what we were looking for. It was there, it was all around us in fact, our own little “scene”.
It was a scene spawned by the three things (in the main) – Massey University and its wider “flatting” community, which absolutely guaranteed a plethora of young people and a vibrant party circuit. Secondly, there was a strong desire to be “different” – or at least a desire to appear different – or to look like we actually were from somewhere else. And last but by no means least, it was a scene created by the passion and resilience of a handful of determined local DJs who by dint of some miracle, had seemingly unlimited access to some of the best black magic plastic/vinyl ever imported to these shores. It was a recipe for good times, and for a brief period from about 1982 through to 1988, the most boring town on the planet had its own little secret – our very own version of Studio 54, NYC ... (hey, just go with it!)
By 1982, Palmerston North had gained a reputation for its lively pub circuit. Great covers bands like Snatch (Majestic, Cloverlea) and Shades Of Grey (Cafe de Paris, Lion Tavern) played the latest “new wave” or post-punk hits of the day, each building up a fanatical following in the process. Meanwhile, the David D’Ath (RIP) fronted Skeptics took things a step further by not only running its own venue (‘Snail Clamps’, behind Square Edge), but by also releasing some of the most original, outrageous, and loudest experimental music ever released in little old NZ.
Around the same time, one Gerhard Pierard was making waves of his own. Massey University had its own radio station, something that would ultimately prove pivotal in establishing Gerhard as Palmy’s leading DJ of the era – not only within the confines of the studio and the four walls of just about every student flat, but out there playing live in the pubs and soon-to-be clubs. And Gerhard had more than just a fantastic record collection, he also had exquisite taste and exactly the right sort of industry connections to make things happen.
"...and they told two friends .."
Before long, Gerhard’s own ‘Buffalo Music Show’ was not only a staple of Radio Massey, it was firmly established as the main alternative to Palmy’s burgeoning live music scene (as covered above) – by mid-to-late 1983, Gerhard had secured a weekend gig playing “live” at the rough ‘Super Liquor Man’ pub on Main Street. Despite the less than ideal surrounds, and the less than appreciative original crowd at that particular establishment, word of mouth quickly gathered a momentum of its own, and it wasn’t long before Gerhard’s steady diet of quirky pop, post-punk, reggae, funk, and pure unadulterated disco, became virtually the only show in town ... but not before it was forced to relocate to a more “freak-friendly” venue ...
Here’s Gerhard’s own take on it ... “it only lasted a month there as the owner of the hotel shut me down because he didn't like the look of the 'Freaks' we were attracting, even though the bar was full - rich coming from a bloke who dressed up in a Super Liquorman outfit and directed traffic in the carpark”. (WTF! – Ed)
Freaks indeed! ... from there the ‘Buffalo Music Show’ moved to the small lounge (back) bar of ‘The Commercial’, which - despite having similar shortcomings to the previous venue (as well as being much smaller) - is where things really started to take off, the crowd growing with every Friday and Saturday night gig , thanks primarily to word of mouth and the radio show. So much so, the tiny dancefloor was ill-equipped to deal with the ever-increasing number of patrons. It was around this time that Gerhard’s younger brother Karl became seriously involved, and a further venue relocation was required in order to accommodate the growing “scene”.
On a personal level, nights at ‘The Commercial’ represented great times for yours truly. At 19, I lived for those weekend nights, I was happily “in love” (hi Jude!), and my music taste was really starting to change – gone was the doom-laden angsty post-punk of my teenage years, largely replaced by the big bouncy electro of the ‘Buffalo Music Show’ – tracks like Donna Summer’s extended ‘I Feel Love’, Shannon’s high energy classic ‘Let The Music Play’, and Shriekback’s immortal ‘All Lined Up’. It felt like a whole other world had opened up – which to some extent was the truth of the matter.
Your blogger auditions for the role of
the Geek in 'Breakfast Club' circa '85
The ‘Cafe de Paris’ on Main Street had already established itself as an ideal “freak-friendly” venue ... or so we thought. It had formerly played host to the aforementioned Shades Of Grey crowd (a loose collective of local punks, skins) in the back bar, while the front (public) bar was the long established haunt of Palmy’s very own patched “gang”, the Mothers Motorcycle Club. With that band having moved on, and ‘The Commercial’ no longer being large enough to deal with the hordes of ‘Buffalo Music Show’ punters, the relative expanse of the Cafe’s lounge bar was the next port of call for Gerhard and Karl.
The Cafe probably only hosted the ‘Buffalo Music Show’ for around six months max, but I had so many top nights there it feels as though it was a lot longer. I had already been part of its rather shabby furniture and fittings during the Shades Of Grey era (as an underage punter), so it always felt a little bit like returning home to me by the time Gerhard and Karl were spinning their wares there. By early 1984, things were really pumping, and key Cafe-era tracks included The Special AKA’s ‘Nelson Mandela’, Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’, and rather fittingly, Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Buffalo Gals’. From memory, Gerhard and Karl were largely sharing the DJ role by this stage.
But like most good things, it couldn’t last. Tension with public bar patrons (aka The Mothers) was slowly reaching boiling point as Buffalo Music/lounge bar numbers grew to the point of overcrowding. The ‘Cafe de Paris’ had always been The Mothers’ turf, so their own “freak” tolerance levels were rapidly receding as the venue started to be claimed by bizzarely-dressed young people with an affliction for what might otherwise be called “disco”. One night it all came to a rather disappointing and abrupt end when one particularly worse for wear patched patron staggered through to the back bar, across the dancefloor, and over to the usually very hospitable DJ Karl ...
Karl Pierard: “They didn’t really know how to deal with all the dancers. On the last night there we had problems with one of the members in particular who tried to impose his music requirements on me. It ended in a fight on the dancefloor with a few of our regulars. (We) had to literally pull the plug that night. About a month later we started ‘Fez’ at the ‘Southern Cross’.”
And it’s at about this stage that the story starts to get really interesting ...
Part Two: Fez, Zed, and beyond ... (1984-1987)
At the start of 1984, Palmerston North didn’t really have a “nightclub” of its own, or any late night social space truly befitting of the description, so pub venues were generally the poison of choice for anyone with an appetite for a party – more by default than by design. There were always student “flat” parties, but they tended to be booze-orientated affairs, with far less emphasis on the music. That was all about to change, and the term “clubbing” was about to enter the vocabulary of Palmerston North’s ever-expanding collective of party animals ... or Freaks, as they might otherwise have been known!
Within a year or so of Gerhard and Karl Pierard pub-hopping their way from Main Street to The Square and back, basically taking their own record collections out to the masses, Palmerston North had, almost inconceivably, three clubs it could call its own; the old upstairs cabaret space on The Square formerly known as the ‘Southern Cross’ would ultimately become ‘Fez’,  the converted ‘Fishbowl’ monstrosity (youth club?) on Cuba Street became the appallingly named ‘The Ritz’, and Cuba Street would soon claim a second “club” when a rather staid piano bar was converted into a less than desirable club space called ‘Champers’. Roughly the same number of clubs as Wellington had at that time, but with less than a quarter of the population to support them. The ‘Buffalo Music Show’ (see Part One) had established that the demand existed, and it led the way in setting up a dedicated “club” space.
So in mid-to-late 1984 things took off with a bang, and the Pierard-established ‘Fez’ was the club that initially blew the scene wide open – the groundwork having already been put firmly in place in terms of attracting core patrons. The old ‘Southern Cross’ venue was certainly the most central (being on The Square) but it was still far from perfect – it was essentially an old-style cabaret space, the furniture was rudimentary at best, its low roof wasn’t especially sound-friendly, and it had a very limited bar space. Perhaps worst of all, pouring insult upon potential catastrophe (for some), its fire exit overlooked Palmy’s central police station and was fully visible to any rogue officer lurking in the police canteen!
DJ Karl at Fez
But, in the greater scheme of things, those issues were minor and completely superfluous to everything else going on – the venue had a large (teak?) dancefloor, a couple of extremely switched-on DJs, and almost from the first night a large set of regular patrons, a crowd that would continue to grow and grow over the course of the next year or so.
I don’t know exactly what it was, but from the moment it was established ‘Fez’ quickly became the “go-to” venue for many people who weren’t actually there for the original ‘Buffalo Music Show’ incarnation(s). Original followers – or the hardcore pub patrons – were soon completely outnumbered, and a genuine “scene” was born ... incorporating students, hairdressers, the surfie crowd, whole crews of cafe workers, fashionistas, thespians, musos, Goths, geeks, regular ‘Joe Public’ dorks, “Madonna-wannabees”, and about half of Palmerston North Girls’ High School’s sixth and seventh forms (and younger!), all mingling comfortably together in the name of a bloody good night out (and perhaps a few other things!).
At the centre of it all was that great dancefloor and the music. By now Karl Pierard was firmly in place as the main DJ, with Gerhard more often than not arriving stylishly late on those occasions he wasn’t plying his trade up in Auckland. The most memorable tracks for yours truly from the ‘Fez’ nights include: Steve Arrington’s ‘Feel So Real’, which for some inexplicable reason always seemed to be playing when I arrived (and that in itself is not without irony, given the song’s title), Fatback’s ‘Spread Love’, Colonel Abram’s ‘Trapped’, Change’s ‘Change Of Heart’, and Was (Not Was)’s fantastically trippy ‘Tell Me That I’m Dreaming’. But each and every one of us had personal favourites, and the dancefloor was seldom empty.
The scene quickly grew beyond the limited parameters of the club itself. Key flats – for both pre and post club gatherings included the surfie hangouts in both Ada Street and Church Street, the dens of debauchery at West Street, Waldegrave Street, Broadway Ave (top of), and Linton Street (among many others). In fact, start in The Square at midnight and walk half a mile in any direction and you could just about be sure you’d come across a large group of happy people making their way to either ‘Fez’ or ‘The Ritz’ (which before too much longer would become ‘Zed’). That’s if they weren’t already skinny-dipping covertly at a local swimming pool of some repute, or as with one horrifying case which I can barely bring myself to recall, being a passenger in a car driving through the Manawatu Gorge post-club with the headlights turned off (not looking at anyone but the word “toxic” and the car “Avenger” spring to mind).
Beyond the flats, mini-scenes were also established at places like Matt & Caro McAlpine’s ‘Dejeuner Cafe’ on Broadway – absolutely the place to go weekdays, pretty much the entire crew there were ‘Fez’ and later, ‘Zed’ regulars, and the wonderful food there was always essential to the detox process on the Monday – and various hairdressing salons such as ‘Scarpers’ and Greg Bassett’s ‘Beyond The Fringe’. It was at these peripheral meeting places that many friendships established in the clubs were reinforced, and strong bonds formed between various individuals. Many of which remain in force, even today, some 25 years or so later. There were other relationships that were not quite so long-standing, or fondly recalled, of course.
Naturally, as the number of regular club patrons increased, so did the number of clubs (see ‘Ritz’, ‘Champers’). The seed had been planted, the market firmly established, and of course that meant opportunities for other DJ-types. Among the original ‘Fez’ crowd was one Scott Bulloch, an audiophile and sound technician extraordinaire, who himself was no stranger to the odd DJ set (in support of Snatch). Scott started playing regular gigs at ‘The Ritz’ on Cuba Street, as ‘Deco’ – in tandem with his good friend John Blomfield – and as a direct alternative to what the Pierard brothers were doing at ‘Fez’. A healthy and generally friendly rivalry had been established, with the direct result being that we, the consumers, were for a period of time at least, spoilt for choice.
Green magic plastic
I’m fairly sure Scott had tapped into the same source of top quality vinyl dance music – specifically the Funk 12-inch variations so popular at the time – that were being imported into Auckland by the likes of ex-Palmerstonian Simon Grigg – who was by now the boss of Propeller Records – and ex-Dude, Peter Urlich. Grigg, Urlich, and Mark Phillips, along with a couple of other key players, were largely responsible for the rise of genuine club culture in Auckland through the mid-to-late Eighties at venues like the ‘Six Month Club’, ‘Brat’, ‘Playground’, and ‘Asylum’ (which, I think, is now the ‘Powerstation’), not only as prolific importers of vinyl, but as club owners. This was the era of those fine ‘Streetsounds’ and ‘Upfront’ compilations, available only on import, and Grigg in particular was relentless in his efforts to get the sound of urban New York out on to the streets of Auckland and beyond.
There was also a crossover of sorts with the fast growing Wellington scene, and a large group from Palmy regularly travelled south to Wellington, more often than not for Sunday nights at Wellington’s premier club of the era, ‘Clares’ on Garrett Street. Proof, if it were needed, that clubbing was fast becoming a lifestyle choice for some, as opposed to any normal run-of-the-mill pastime. Similarly, there were a few key individuals from the mid-Eighties Wellington scene who deemed the two hour trip north to Palmy an equally rewarding experience. I could probably write extensively on the Wellington scene as I personally knew it from 1986 to 1993 – coinciding with the rise of both Acid House and Hip Hop – but this isn’t the time or place.
It becomes a little vague for me now in terms of timeline and the exact sequence of events at this stage, not helped by my own move to Wellington in mid 1986, but I think a hairdresser named Joe Ruhe (spelling?) had been the original DJ at ‘The Ritz’, but Joe had moved on to ‘Champers’ by late 1985, which is roughly the stage ‘Fez’ hit its use-by date and ceased to exist. I’m really not sure how that came about but Gerhard had been increasingly absent, and almost overnight, ‘Fez’ died a death before reinventing itself as ‘Zed’ at what was originally ‘The Ritz’, Karl back behind the decks. In a strange twist, Scott Bulloch and John Blomfield (aka ‘Deco’) then started playing up at the old ‘Southern Cross’ around the same time. Equally strange is the recall I have of them also having a short stint at ‘The Commercial’ – the scene of the original ‘Buffalo Music Show’! ... 
Original Zed Flyer early '86
By mid 1986, ‘Zed’ was in full swing, the original ‘Fez’ crowd still largely intact, but because the venue was somewhat more upmarket than the ‘Southern Cross’ – arguably better decor (lots of chrome, plush seating), better sound/lighting, a glassed mezzanine level, and a large dancefloor – it soon became rather more than our own little secret. It could be argued that ‘Zed’ was Palmerston North’s first genuine “mainstream” nightclub. It was certainly the most popular venue for the best part of the next year at least (and probably longer) – undergoing a name change to ‘Exchequers’ by around 1987 or 1988. There was a brief revival of what might be termed the “underground” scene when the ‘Cafe de Paris’ back bar became the ‘Kaz Bar’ for a short period of time, but on the whole clubbing was no longer the domain of a select few insomniacs with a passion for dance music.
Over the course of the following decade the concept of “clubbing” pretty much became ingrained in the collective psyche of youth culture in Palmerston North, and more generally, within every major city in New Zealand. I don’t know what Palmerston North is like today in terms of nightlife, but my experience of Wellington and other cities overseas suggests that going out to a club is now firmly entrenched in mainstream culture, and very much part of normal teenage/youth behaviour. That certainly wasn’t the case back in 1984. Back then it was something akin to an extreme sport – new, exciting, and definitely a little dangerous ... and ultimately something worth documenting and celebrating a full quarter of a century on.
The ‘Fezzed’ reunion takes place in Palmerston North on March 2, 2012.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Blog update: Glasgow, King Tut's, Thrum and all that ...

If any of my reader (hi Mum!) has been wondering just what has happened to this blog over the past couple of months, then let me assure/warn you that my prolonged period of inactivity is just as likely now over. I say “just as likely” because in all reality, I really can’t be sure!

What I can say for certain is that since my last post here, life has certainly been busy – August and September being months that found me (and my family of five) completing a 25,000-mile round trip across the globe, or more specifically to Scotland and back. I probably could have carried on posting up the odd piece here and there, but frankly life is too short and as one of the heroes of my misspent youth once famously said ... “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it” (thanks Ferris, sage advice, as ever).
So anyway, given that this entire blog has been about music so far (though I do intend to expand those limited horizons at some point in the not too distant future) it would be remiss of me not to mention the one music-related highlight of the aforementioned trip:
Rewind: King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut – St Vincent Street, Glasgow, circa 1994 – my beloved and I witness a smashing gig by local outfit Thrum, a country/indie band of some repute. Thrum, magnificently fronted by the talented (and somewhat gorgeous) Monica Queen, had - at that point - developed a strong following on the back of a successful single, ‘So Glad’, and my soon-to-be-wife and I counted ourselves as definite converts. Not long after that gig, we married, moved to New Zealand, lost touch with Glasgow and its vibrant music scene, and heard no more from Thrum.
As it turned out, Thrum broke up around 1995, Monica went on to work for the likes of Belle & Sebastian and Snow Patrol ... and then, some 16 or 17 years later ... Thrum reformed.
Fast Forward: King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, St Vincent Street, Glasgow, 10 September 2011 – my beloved and I were celebrating our 17th wedding anniversary with a night out in Glasgow, and thanks to the marvels of the internet we found ourselves pre-warned and armed with tickets for a Thrum gig at the very same venue we’d caught the band at 17 years earlier! We were late in arriving thanks to over-indulging in the delights of old friends and a Turkish restaurant down the road, but we still caught the rousing finale, still heard ‘So Glad’ again after all these years, and if anything, the band – and Monica’s voice – sounded better than either of us could recall.

Our evening was complete when I caught up with a few more old friends at The Griffin (a pub round the corner) and the lovely Manuelle (hi darling!) and I then stayed the night (as guests) at the very hotel we had originally met at as workmates (The Marriott on Argyle Street) all those years ago ...
Small things and all that ... a series of coincidences, some planned, some just spooky, but it was a great night of nostalgia for both of us, and definitely one of the highlights of a great stay in Scotland.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

List: Five More ‘Kiwi’ Desert Island Discs

More essential New Zealand albums of my lifetime:

The Gordons – The Gordons (1981)
John Halvorsen, Brent McLachlan, and Alister Parker are probably better known as key members of the band Bailter Space (aka Bailterspace), but long before Bailter Space enjoyed relative success as stalwarts of the New Zealand indie scene with a run of fine albums through the late Eighties and early Nineties, the same trio had earned their recording spurs as The Gordons. And while The Gordons turned out to be a rather short-lived affair – releasing just two albums and an EP – anyone lucky enough to see the band perform live surely won’t have forgotten the experience. In fact, their ears will still be ringing. Put simply, no other Kiwi band, before or since – The Skeptics being one possible exception – could replicate The Gordons’ unique sound, which was a heady combination of jagged feedback and guitar-led noise, with just the occasional hint of melody thrown in for good measure. That may not sound especially appealing to some, but somehow, on the band’s 1981 self-titled debut it all came together perfectly and The Gordons created a real humdinger of an album, a cohesive whole that greatly exceeded the sum of its otherwise jumbled parts.

Ak 79 – Various (1980/1993)

It may have taken a year or so longer to arrive on these tranquil shores, but the popular music phenomenon we know (and love) as ‘Punk Rock’ had well and truly taken hold in Godzone by 1979. Not just in Auckland, but in all of the main centres, all the way down to Dunedin. It’s a cliché now, but Punk really was all about adopting a fresh attitude and challenging polite society’s accepted norms, and wherever there was a relatively large population base you were bound to find a pocket of individuals taking great pride and delight in doing just that. Ak 79 is a compilation album that brings together many of the movement’s key protagonists in this part of the world – Toy Love, The Swingers, The Scavengers, and Proud Scum. An expanded edition was released in 1993 to include other era luminaries such as The Spelling Mistakes and The Suburban Reptiles. Ak 79 captures the spirit of its time perfectly, and is an absolute “must have” for any self respecting New Zealand music collector.

Flock (The Best of ...) – The Mutton Birds (1992)

I’m probably quite biased because two latter period band members were acquaintances of mine from the sprawling metropolis of Palmerston North (bassist Alan Gregg and guitarist Chris Sheehan) but ultimately the reason I was a big fan of The Mutton Birds was down to the band’s main man Don McGlashan (founder, composer, vocalist). McGlashan had a rare talent for writing quintessentially Kiwi songs ... songs about us, songs specific to our location, and music that spoke to our sense of what it means to be a New Zealander. He’d done exactly the same thing with Blam Blam Blam and The Front Lawn, but by the time The Mutton Birds came along he’d developed his art into a far more accessible form, which in turn catered rather more to the mainstream than either of those earlier projects. Oh, and it probably helped that his boy-next-door vocals contained the most charming nu zild accent ever committed to vinyl. 

Into The Dojo – Black Seeds (2006)
So often unfairly maligned by local music critics who toss around lazy labels like “UB40-lite” and “barbeque reggae”, the Black Seeds have nonetheless established a strong loyal fanbase – not only in hometown Wellington, but throughout the country and beyond – thanks to a run of consistently strong albums following on from their 2001 debut, Keep On Pushing. Into The Dojo was the band’s third full-length studio effort and for me it rates as their best – rootsy, earthy, packed full of decent tunes and warm summery vibes. Disregard the haters and the tall poppy bashers, Reggae/Dub as a genre has always had to fight hard for survival in this often insular corner of the planet, yet one listen to a track like ‘Love For Property’ ought to be enough to convince any doubters that Aotearoa’s dub contingent are on the right path ... or should that be the path to righteousness? In the case of the Black Seeds and specifically Into The Dojo, that path led to a double platinum number one and a whole year in the local album chart ... there must have been an awful lot of barbeques that particular year.

Heavenly Pop Hits – The Chills (1994)
I’m cheating here by including another compilation album but in all honesty, it just doesn’t feel right leaving a band as iconic as The Chills to sink without any fanfare ... and this is all about survival on a desert island after all – no matter how indulgent it might be attempting to salvage so many albums (ten and counting!). Just as it doesn’t feel right to single out any specific Chills album (and there are a few). Heavenly Pop Hits does however collect the very best of The Chills, from the band’s earliest days as a Flying Nun (label) original, right through to its on again/off again format of recent years ... essentially becoming more than ever the “solo” project of Martin Phillipps. While his voice wasn’t always to my taste – a little monotonous – there is no question he was a brilliant composer and songwriter. If there was a pop hook to be found amid the otherwise often gloomy sound, Phillipps would find it, build upon it, and ultimately create a song that not only appealed to post-punkers, but also the wider music-buying public. ‘Pink Frost’ gave Kiwi music its very own Joy Division moment, while ‘I Love My Leather Jacket’ has taken on a life of its own in the years since its release.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Album Review: The Naked and Famous – Passive Me, Aggressive You (2010)


Not too many New Zealand bands managed to capture the spirit (or zeitgeist) of 2010 quite as readily or easily as the youthful Auckland-based five-piece The Naked and Famous, with the band’s debut album Passive Me, Aggressive You emulating the hit single ‘Young Blood’ by rocketing to the top of the local (NZ) charts.

Combining poppier elements of bands like MGMT and Empire of The Sun, The NaF are all about clever songs and catchy power-pop tunes, with distorted synths and a combination of boy-girl vocals. But it’s also fair to say that a portion of the band’s commercial appeal probably lies with its very polished too-cool-for-school hipster chic.

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the bulk of those responsible for propelling The NaF to the top of the charts are – much like the band itself – barely out of school uniform. Or at the very least, under the age of 25, and certainly not yet cynical or world-weary enough to start wondering about long term prospects and use-by dates.

And while such pesky trivialities like sustainability and longevity might be worth thinking about when you start to consider just how derivative some of Passive Me, Aggressive You sounds after a couple of listens, for now the band is riding the crest of a very large wave, and I’m definitely not going to be the mean spirited adult who tells them “no you can’t do that” … because they already have, and will doubtlessly do so again whenever they please.

The Naked and Famous make it all seem so carefree and effortless on the glossy Passive Me, Aggressive You that it would be rather churlish not to acknowledge that the album is something close to the perfect embodiment of Alt-pop’s vibrant and increasingly global crossover appeal throughout the 2010 calendar year. This band nail it, and where it goes from here is a discussion best left for another day.

Highlights: ‘All Of This’, ‘Punching In A Dream’, ‘No Way’, ‘Young Blood’, and the closer, ‘Girls Like You’.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

List: Five ‘Kiwi’ Desert Island Discs

Essential New Zealand albums of my lifetime:

Luxury Length – Blam Blam Blam (1981)

The backdrop to this 1981 album was provided by the nationwide unrest and sheer turmoil of the ill-advised Springbok tour. The presence of Riot Police on our streets was a new development for our hitherto innocent and untainted land, and bands like The Blams and tour-mates The Newmatics captured those bleak days perfectly with their own unique brand of post-punk angst. The chart-crashing and ironic single ‘No Depression in NZ’ may have been the release that propelled Blam Blam Blam to the forefront of public consciousness, but their Luxury Length album confirmed their status as the leading social commentators of the day. Few potential targets were spared, as Don McGlashan and co raged against everything from the SIS to big business. And how relevant today, in the wake of David Bain’s release, are the lyrics contained within ‘Got To Be Guilty’ (written about the AA Thomas case) … “he’s gotta be guilty, there’s no point in changing the subject, we didn’t get where we are today, by being soft on an obvious reject” …

Futureproof - Pitch Black (1999)

The aptly-titled debut release (under the Pitch Black moniker at least) for the thereafter prolific duo Paddy Free and Mike Hodgson. Futureproof is a quite startling collection of dubby, moody, and occasionally dark electronic tracks, and not only did this release raise the bar for all local pretenders within the genre, it also convinced this observer that advances in technology had to a large extent levelled the playing field for Kiwi artists seeking to compete with the more established international acts dominating the local dance scene. A landmark work for New Zealand electronic music, and it’s hard to believe this album is already more than a decade old.

Tiny Blue Biosphere – Rhian Sheehan (2004)

Tiny Blue Biosphere is the classically-trained Rhian Sheehan’s second album, a follow-up to the similarly gorgeous Paradigm Shift, and like its predecessor it deals with other-worldly, occasionally other-galaxy, conundrums such as … What does it all mean? Sheehan’s horizons are broad, and he doesn’t confine his search for an answer to the mere finiteness of planet earth. Featuring clever use of samples, washes of warm synth, and gentle flowing waves of acoustic guitar, it might be said that Sheehan puts the “way over” into the “out there”. This is head music, but parts of it will also make you want to dance - or at the very least have you dancing on the inside. Tiny Blue Biosphere is the perfect synthetic space and time soundtrack to one of those lazy do nothing days after a hard night out clubbing. Adopt the crash position and simply enjoy.

Anthology – The Clean (2003)

Short of buying every single, EP, or album released by this seminal Flying Nun band, you’ll never be able to fully appreciate the complete evolution of the Dunedin Sound or the prolific label behind it unless you hear Anthology from start to finish. From their early Eighties Lo-Fi four-track origins to the gloss and polish of their new millennium output, The Clean were consistently brilliant every step of the way. Containing witty and wry observations on all facets of bed-sit living in the deepest darkest south and so much more, Anthology captures all of this truly unique band’s most precious moments in one sitting. Priceless.

True Colours – Split Enz (1980)

This album provided the soundtrack to my final year at high school, and it was one that did much to convince aspiring musicians across the land that New Zealand artists could compete commercially on the international stage. With the arrival of Neil Finn and the release of Frenzy a year earlier, Split Enz had abandoned their formative prog-rock excesses to introduce a far more palatable pop element to their zany theatrics. Yet it took the new wave sensibilities of True Colours and its three epic singles to elevate the band to the next level. Kiwi pop hadn’t sounded this good before, and Split Enz would never sound this good again. True Colours was the first sign that in Neil Finn, we had a potential pop genius on our hands.

More to follow …

Sunday, May 15, 2011

List: 10 Great Gigs

Ten exceptional gigs spanning three full decades from 1981 to 2010. I’ve restricted this list to specific concerts, deliberately omitting DJ gigs/sets and performances that were part of a summer festival weekend or any event featuring a multitude of bands. This was originally posted on:  http://croymusicmiscellany.com/

1 New Order – Town Hall, Wellington, New Zealand, 1987

Synthetic Goodness
By 1987 New Order were big news, and the band’s reach had extended well beyond its Manc roots all the way across several oceans to little old New Zealand. Most of that was due to a dancefloor stomper called Blue Monday having already taken its rightful place as the best selling 12-inch single of all-time, but more generally the band’s popularity had been cemented by the release of four exceptional albums over the course of the preceding six years. The band’s February ’87 gig was my first at the Wellington Town Hall, and it coincided with New Order enjoying the coveted status of my “latest fave band”. I arrived sufficiently early to get a prime standing spot centre-left and just two rows of bodies back. As I recall it, the sound was perfect – crisp, clear, and state of the art. More memorably, it was also the night I fell hopelessly in love with keyboardist Gillian Gilbert – albeit a temporary condition. Gillian isn’t a “beauty” in any conventional sense but that night on stage, almost within touching distance (easy there tiger!), she was the queen of gothic cool personified, teasing me with her relative detachment and her nonchalant control of the electronic rig of synthetic goodness that surrounded her. I can also recall being quite impressed with bassist Peter Hook on one of the rare occasions I dared look away from Gillian for more than a few seconds. Nearly a quarter of a century and dozens upon dozens of concerts later, I can’t for the life of me remember a single track the band played that night but I just know all of the classics (to that point) were covered, all of the boxes were ticked, and I left the venue convinced that I’d just witnessed New Order performing at the absolute peak of its powers – which, with the benefit of hindsight, was very much the case.

2 The Specials – Logan Campbell Centre, Auckland, New Zealand, 2009

Extra Special
There are some gigs you go to on a last minute whim, some you go to simply because of the current hype surrounding a particular artist or band, others you attend because friends convince you that it would be a good excuse for night out ... and then there are those you’ve waited your whole life for and you just know that you’ll never get another chance unless you make the commitment nice and early. The Specials gig in Auckland back in 2009 fell into the latter category for yours truly. A once in a lifetime opportunity to see a band that had never before performed in New Zealand, a band I’d admired from a (long) distance for the best part of 30 years, and one that will surely never cross my path ever again. Suffice to say I snapped up three tickets as soon as they went on sale, applied for a “long weekend away” clearance from “she who must be obeyed”, and invited two of my oldest and closest pals to join me on a (1200km return) roadtrip of ‘Fear and Loathing’ proportions. As it turned out, the masterplan was executed to perfection ... for the best part of 48 hours, three 40-something Rude Boys from way back indulged in the sort of wanton debauchery that would have had even Hunter S Thompson reaching for the industrial strength Nurofen. The band didn’t disappoint on the night; from the outset it became a journey into “greatest hits” territory and I’m fairly certain every single track from the acclaimed self-titled debut album got an airing, as well as several others from the More Specials follow-up. The perennially grumpy Terry Hall looked somewhat heavier and worse for wear but his voice remained as distinctive as ever. Co-vocalist Neville Staple was a ball of energy throughout, but the real key to a phenomenal Specials performance was that sublime rhythm section. The only downsides were the venue’s poor acoustics, and the fact that a certain Mr Jerry Dammers missed the tour. But this was the nostalgia circuit after all, and we’d learned a long time ago that we can’t always have everything.

3 BB King – Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland, 1994

BB & Lucille
I remember getting into some trouble for not taking my soon-to-be-wife to this particular gig on account of the fact that I “didn’t think she’d be into it” ... or just plain “didn’t think” (you decide!). If memory serves, this was part of a wider Glasgow International Arts Festival taking place at the time, and I went with a work colleague from the hotel I worked at. I recall being in awe of the venue itself but that was offset by the fact that we were sitting down throughout. Suffice to say I was a little frustrated, but the sound quality was fantastic. BB King (85) toured NZ last month to mixed/poor reviews so I guess I was quite lucky to see the Blues Legend at the relatively young age of 68. I actually hadn’t anticipated this gig being quite so funky (James Brown-esque to the point of King’s on-stage entourage including a dedicated dancer – almost a JB-lookalike – improvising on all of the Godfather’s best shuffles) but such is King’s range and versatility I really shouldn’t have been surprised. It was a special night of classic Blues, Gospel, and pure unadulterated Soul at its very best. And oh man, what a guitarist!

4 Black Uhuru – Town Hall, Wellington, New Zealand, 2003

Pocket Dynamo Rose
Okay, so this wasn’t strictly Black Uhuru, but it was as close as it gets – original vocalist Michael Rose, along with the sensational ‘riddim twins’ Sly Dunbar (drums) and Robbie Shakespeare (bass) – and the set-list played like a “best of” Black Uhuru. Rose had been replaced as Black Uhuru’s vocalist by one Junior Reid in the mid-Eighties, but it is Rose’s superior voice that dominates the band’s best material. If you’ve never seen Sly ‘n’ Robbie live, close up and in the flesh, then I’d contend your musical education isn’t complete – this was exhibition stuff by two of the finest musicians ever to grace a stage in New Zealand. As for the pint-sized Michael Rose ... the pocket jack-in-the-box gave what must surely have been one of his best ever vocal performances – covering virtually all of Black Uhuru’s “hits” and a number of other key genre standards. Aside from the seriously sweet smells permeating the Town Hall that night, my abiding memory of this gig is an extended version of the classic Party in Session, which just seemed to go on and on ... and actually summed the night up perfectly.

5 David Bowie – Athletic Park, Wellington, New Zealand, 1983

Fashion & Infamy
David Bowie was a genuine hero for me by the time he came to NZ in late 1983 as part of his ‘Serious Moonlight’ World tour, but I now fully appreciate that I was about ten years too late in terms of seeing him in his prime. By ’83 of course he was at his commercial peak (Let’s Dance was a global smash) but a mere shadow of the artist that bestrode the Seventies like a colossus. This was bottle blonde Bowie in a flash white suit, churning out generic disco for the masses, looking – from a “creative” perspective at least – for all the world like yesterday’s man. He was cashing in, and very much on auto pilot, but I still enjoyed the sense of occasion, the outdoor event, that this gig presented. It was Bowie, and even if he only played Life on Mars (which he did) I was going to be there to witness it. Then again, “enjoy” and “witness” might be stretching it ... this gig also triggered my own personal ‘Christiane F’ moment. What else do you call collapsing in a heap after vomiting all over your 16-year-old punkette girlfriend’s carefully and lovingly prepared barnet just as Bowie kicked off? ... probably not the high point of our already tempestuous relationship. That said, I do recall the two support bands – NZ’s own Dance Exponents and Oz new wavers The Models – were nothing less than brilliant ... in addition to Life on Mars. Perhaps it was Bowie’s horrendous suit that made me do it? Maybe it was the vodka? Regardless, it was kind of fitting, and surely a boy is allowed one little mistake? – apparently so, we continued to fight for the next two years before push met shove. But none of that is important, this gig makes the list simply because it was my first truly big “concert”.

6 U2 – Celtic Park, Glasgow, Scotland, 1993

His Lordship
I’d been living in Glasgow (or Coatbridge) just a matter of weeks by the time the juggernaut that was U2’s Zoo TV tour rolled into town in the summer of 1993. I wasn’t a massive U2 fan by any stretch but for whatever reason I found myself attending both gigs U2 performed at the hallowed football stadium in Glasgow’s east end – on successive days, a Saturday and a Sunday. As such the gigs tend to blend into one, with support acts on either day including PJ Harvey, Utah Saints, and Stereo MCs – though quite who played when remains unclear in my befuddled head nearly two decades on. I’d never before seen anything quite like this – a massive stage with all sorts of structural/visual aids, giant television sets for live video link-ups etc (did Bono really call Sarajevo or somewhere mid-concert?). Again this rates more as an event for me rather than anything specific to the music, or the quality thereof. U2 was clearly at the height of its popularity – quite probably the biggest band on the planet at the time – and to some extent the big stage funk and all of the excitement surrounding it won me over sufficiently for me to start collecting the band’s back catalogue. Not that it gets much of an airing these days.

7 Laurie Anderson – Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, 1986

Life Lessons with Laurie
If I thought U2 presented a state of the art concert in 1993 (and they did), I don’t quite know how to adequately describe Laurie Anderson’s gig at Wellington’s sedate Michael Fowler Centre in 1986. This was part of the Wellington Festival of the Arts – an annual (?) month long arts extravaganza sorely missed today. It wasn’t so much a music concert as a “life lessons” lecture involving a projector, slides (that’s a bit like MS Powerpoint, kids), electric violins, synthesisers, vocoders (see auto tune), and a whole swag of other electronic wizardry. And it was about as intimate a concert experience as I’ve ever had – Laurie was so open to discussing her life story I half expected “any questions from the floor?” at the conclusion of her set. I felt I got to know her, and it isn’t often you can say that about a so-called popular music artist after just a couple of hours in their company. But there was music aplenty as well, some classical, and some weird excuse for what might loosely be described as “pop”. What a shame most know her as either “that chick that did O Superman” or as “Lou Reed’s missus”. Rock on Laurie!

8 Paul Weller – The Powerstation, Auckland, New Zealand, 2010

Waking Up Auckland
Paul Weller the solo artist, Paul Weller the Legend. Unlike the Specials gig a year earlier, the Weller gig in Auckland was not part of the nostalgia circuit. This wasn’t about an artist coming to NZ for the first time simply to play his oldest and greatest hits. It was all about Paul Weller – living, vibrant, and contemporary – arriving to play his current material and perhaps also to delve deep into the past depending on how the mood took him. That’s the benefit of being active as a recording artist, of being relevant, and of having more than a couple of albums to draw from. However, like the Specials, Weller is another artist I’d waited forever to see live. In the end Weller mixed things up nicely – tracks from his 2010 album Wake Up The Nation dominating the set-list alongside several other key solo career gems, Jam classics like That’s Entertainment and A Town Called Malice, but surprisingly very little from his Style Council period. The Powerstation is probably the best live venue in New Zealand and its comfortable environs – despite being sold out – certainly added to my enjoyment of the night, as did the fact that my beloved and I were finally able to enjoy an overdue night out in the big smoke.

9 Split Enz – Sports Stadium, Palmerston North, New Zealand, 1981

Kiwi Legends
When they write the definitive tome on the history of popular music in New Zealand there will be an entire chapter (if not several) devoted to Split Enz and its wider influence through the Seventies and Eighties. And not just because the band spawned the monster that eventually became Neil Finn’s Crowded House, but because Split Enz was the first Kiwi band (of my lifetime) to produce wholly original material that sold by the truckload (locally). The band’s 1980 album, True Colours, also happened to provide the very fluorescent soundtrack to my final year of high school. When Split Enz came to my (old) home town of “palmy” in 1981 I was barely out of school uniform so this has to rate as my first serious gig. For the uninitiated it is difficult to describe quite what Split Enz sound like – they started out as quirky prog weirdos before morphing into mainstays of NZ’s new wave scene, finally running out of gas by the mid Eighties when the Finn brothers split and started to do their own projects. For me, Split Enz rate as NZ’s number one “pop” act of all-time, and I count myself very lucky to have witnessed the band performing at its peak. But wait, there’s more ... the support band at this gig was a certain Blam Blam Blam, a band whose flame flickered brightly but all too briefly, another with a strong personal connection to yours truly. I hope to rave about the “great lost Kiwi bands” in more detail sometime in the future on CMM, and Blam Blam Blam will just as likely provide the backbone to that piece. Put simply, the Blams were sensational on the night in question, and just quietly, may have even overshadowed the main act.

10 Swervedriver – King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow, Scotland, 1993

Duel Single
I’m now wondering how Swervedriver manage to scrape into my top 10 at the expense of luminaries like Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Massive Attack, Womack & Womack, and um, the Stray Cats, but sometimes a gig is more about the venue and the night itself; the sense of adventure rather than the artist up on stage. And to be fair, we’re talking about the low ebb 1986 version of Bob Dylan in this instance, and all of the others were irretrievably flawed gigs for reasons best not gone into here. So Swervedriver make the cut. When you’re a stranger in a “foreign” city you tend to gravitate to places you feel most comfortable and in terms of my own two years living in Glasgow there are two places that loom large in the memory bank – the aforementioned Celtic Park on match day, and the renowned King Tut’s venue which was practically – and most conveniently – a mere stone’s throw from my inner city dwelling. King Tut’s became a semi regular haunt in the months that followed but I’ll always recall with fondness my first visit there. Swervedriver were shoegaze survivors enjoying a period of relative success thanks to a monumental track called Duel riding high in the indie charts at the time; I wasn’t a huge fan but I absolutely loved Duel and I’ll never forget being part of the sweaty heaving throng on the compressed King Tut’s dancefloor when the opening bars of that track roared into life. It is just a small thing but recall of that moment remains crystal clear, and for a few weeks afterwards the Swervedriver gig was all I talked about. It was a short-lived love affair with that particular band, but King Tut’s had won me over for the duration. So much so, every subsequent visit to Glasgow has seen me buying the latest edition of a publication called ‘The List’ in the hope that I’ll find another excuse to return to King Tut’s.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Classic Album Review: Elastica – Elastica (1995)


Back in 1993, before there was Brit-Pop, a number of UK radio DJs were hyping something called the “new wave of new wave”, and Elastica were right at the forefront of that supposed new scene. As someone who thoroughly appreciated the first wave of “new wave”, I recall the sense of excitement generated by a number of “vital” new bands around at that time, many of them adopting something of a back-to-the-future approach to their signature sounds.

When Elastica released ‘Stutter’ as a single that year it received ample airplay but the fact that it was (initially) of limited stock and quite hard to find, meant that hype about the band – and the “scene” – went into overdrive.

That vampish lead singer Justine Frischmann was also reportedly in a relationship with Damon Albarn (of then fledgling band Blur – whose ‘Chemical World’ single of the same year conveniently sat snugly within the confines of the NWONW sub-genre) didn’t harm Elastica in the short-term credibility/publicity stakes.

The romance would turn out to be as fleeting as the scene itself – and I guess in reality the whole NWONW thing was just a figment of some hype merchant’s imagination and just as quickly swamped by Brit-Pop when Oasis and Blur suddenly found themselves bigger than Benhur.

‘Stutter’ was certainly a great choice as a lead-off single, a brilliant two-and-a-bit minute slice of pure velocity – thumping percussion, hard-edged bass, buzzsaw guitar, and angsty lyrics. ‘Stutter’ was followed by the Wire-influenced ‘Line Up’, ‘Connection’, and what would turn out to be – in my opinion – the second best track on this album, ‘Waking Up’ (a ditty dedicated to the delights of unemployment).

If I recall correctly, the self-titled album was somewhat belatedly released, perhaps as a consequence of the band not having much material to work with initially. It could be said it rather missed the zeitgeist of the short-lived scene, rendering it more of a follow-up to Elastica’s initial impact rather than a concurrent supplementary release. I’m fairly certain all four singles (listed above) had run their course by the time the album hit the shops (but I could be wrong about that, it’s all a bit of a … erm, blur).

It is nonetheless a pretty decent album, if a little one dimensional at times, even listening to it some 15 years later. The aforementioned Wire influence is huge (and the source of a few accusations of plagiarism at the time), as is that of Gang of Four and several other prominent early 80s post-punkers. The singles represent the stand-outs but few of the 16 tracks compromise on quality and the only surprise is that this is as good as it got when it comes to Elastica.

The band followed this up with an EP that morphed into an album called The Menace (2000), but for all of the initial hype and promise, somewhere along the way Elastica lost crucial momentum, and the self-titled debut now stands as a document of a band that time forgot. They really could’ve (and should’ve) been a contender.  

Album Review: Franz Ferdinand – Blood (2009)


Six years on from the band’s celebrated debut album, I’m still not convinced about Franz Ferdinand. I enjoyed that album – in parts – and found a lot more to like about its almost immediate follow-up, but 2009’s Tonight left me feeling a tad disappointed and rather nonplussed about the direction Franz were headed. This release, Blood, a remix/Dub version of Tonight, merely reinforces those feelings of indifference, despite it containing the odd gem.

Where Pitchfork were happy to compare Blood to Primal Scream’s Echo Dek (the Dub version of the Scream’s Vanishing Point album – what is it about Scottish bands and Dub remixes?) it has to be said that producer Dan Carey (Blood) is certainly no Adrian Sherwood (Echo Dek).

While Carey does a decent enough job on some tracks, applying large portions of synthetic gloss, his work lacks the authenticity and hard edge of Sherwood, and Blood is clearly more geared toward floor-filling Electronica than genuine blissed-out bass heavy horizontal Dub (see Echo Dek).

In reality this is just another remix album with a few echo effects thrown in. No more, no less.

Recommended for Franz fans with a taste for experimental Electronica, but I can’t see this being particularly appealing to non-converts.

Highlights: ‘The Vaguest of Feeling’ (which is actually quite brilliant), ‘Katherine Hit Me’ (which I think in its original form was ‘No You Girls’ on Tonight?), and ‘Feeling Kind of Anxious’ (was ‘Ulysses’).